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Dr. Deborah Birx leverages military, HIV background in COVID-19 fight

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Dr. Deborah Birx leverages military, HIV background in COVID-19 fight
Ambassador Debbie Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, also serves as the administration's coordinator on HIV/AIDS. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

March 19 (UPI) -- Nearly every day for three weeks, Dr. Deborah Birx has stood next to next to Vice President Mike Pence as part of the White House's efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100 Americans.

Though her name may have been largely unknown to most Americans before the COVID-19 outbreak, she's been working to fight the spread of communicable diseases on behalf of the U.S. government for well over three decades.

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Pence described Birx, a U.S. ambassador at large, as a "world-renowned global health official and physician" on Feb. 27 when he announced her addition to the coronavirus task force.

"Three different administrations across both political parties have relied on her knowledge and judgment," he said at the time. "She has worked from the research bench to the clinic, but understands the primary focus must always be to reach the individuals most in need."

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Birx, 63, a Pennsylvania native, brings a long military career and medical background in immunology to her new role.

In addition to being the White House coronavirus response coordinator, she is the U.S. global AIDS coordinator, chosen to serve in the position by President Barack Obama in 2014.

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In that role, Birx oversee's the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, as well as U.S. involvement in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

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She began her career with the federal government in 1985 as a clinician in immunology, with a focus on HIV and AIDS vaccine research, at the Department of Defense. She was assistant chief of the Hospital Immunology Service at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before becoming director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research from 1996 to 2005.

From 2005 until 2014, Birx was the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Global HIV/AIDS. During that time, she received a lifetime achievement award from the African Society for Laboratory Medicine for her work at building local capacity and strengthening laboratory health services on the continent.

The White House said she has "developed and patented vaccines, including leading one of the most influential HIV vaccine trials in history."

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She was also awarded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's William C. Watson Jr. Medal of Excellence in 2014.

Pence described her as his "right arm" in the fight to halt the coronavirus spread.

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A mother to two women in their 30s, Birx has called on millennials to step up to help stop the spread of the virus, which health officials initially warned is more deadly for seniors. She said young people also are becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.

"There are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill and very seriously ill in the ICUs," she said during Wednesday's task force briefing.

"We think part of this may be that people heeded the early data coming out of China and coming out of South Korea of the elderly or those with pre-existing medical conditions were a particular risk.

"It may have been that the millennial generation ... there may be disproportional number of infections among that group, and so even if it's a rare occurrence it may be seen more frequently in that group."

Birx said that since people in this younger age group are more likely to be out in public during the epidemic, it's important for them to avoid gathering in large groups.

"The millennials are incredibly good about getting information out in a clear way, but more importantly, they are incredibly good about understanding how to protect one another, how to protect their parents and how to protect their grandparents," she told ABC's Good Morning America.

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